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     Some folks have commented about our summer sermon series and how they’re surprised that the Power of Sin/Death/Satan has figured so significantly into my preaching.

It seems awful old-fashioned and superstitious, the obvious implication conveys. Maybe so.

But necessarily so, I’d argue.

Lordship, which Paul highlights as the climax of the Gospel and identifies as the necessary confession for faith, is also the most frequent self-attestation Jesus makes in the Gospel narratives. By my count, at least 26 times in the Synoptics Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man prefigured in Daniel 7.13-14.

In the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, it’s Jesus’ declaration that he’s the promised Son of Man that provokes the plot to undo him, and it’s at the end of Mark’s Gospel- at his trial- that Jesus, alluding to Daniel 7 and Psalm 110, refers to himself as the Son of Man again, causing the chief priests to tear their garments and accuse him of blasphemy.

They condemn Jesus to death for claiming that God soon would install him at God’s right hand as the King and Lord of the cosmos.

Two features emerge from the Son of Man texts Jesus cites.

1. ) The scope of the Son of Man’s Lordship will be cosmic and universal: “…to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion…” 

2.) Also, the Son of Man will establish his dominion as Lord by wresting dominion from God’s enemies: “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool at your feet. (Psalm 110.1)”

     Caesar understood what Christians so often forget even though it’s obvious in the scriptures Jesus applies to himself: to be allegiant to one Lord is to content against another Lord.

When Paul tells the Romans that in order to be saved they must confess that Jesus is Lord, Paul leaves unsaid the necessary correlative confession: to name Jesus as Lord is to name the Enemy from whom Jesus has delivered you. If we contribute anything to our salvation, perhaps it’s only our knowledge of the one against whom the battle we call salvation is fought.

Christ’s Lordship is cosmic in terms of the universal, creation-vast scope of his reign.

Christ’s Lordship is cosmic because it’s a dominion being wrought in opposition to alien Powers that are themselves cosmic.

 

What God has done in Christ, enthroning Jesus as the Lord prophesied by Daniel, becomes unintelligible if we reduce the dramatis personnae of the salvation story to 3: God, Christ, and Humanity.

To understand the cosmic claims of Christ’s Lordship, the Gospel story requires 4 characters:

God, Christ, Humanity.

And the Enemy.

Whom Paul calls variously Sin, Death, the Powers, and Satan.

The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament you can’t speak proper Christian without believing in him; you certainly can’t confess “Jesus is Lord” in the fullness meant by the church fathers. Even the ancient Christmas carols most commonly describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of Satan’s territory.

Whether you believe Satan is real is beside the point because Jesus did.

To pull off the monster masks and to insist that something else is going on behind them, as the Enlightenment has taught us to do, is to ignore how Jesus, fundamentally, understood himself and his mission. It’s to ignore how his first followers- and, interestingly, his first critics- understood him.

The Apostle John spells it out for us, spells out the reason for Jesus’ coming not in terms of our sin but in terms of Satan. John says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.”

And when Peter explains who Jesus is to a curious Roman named Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter says: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who were under the power of the Devil.” When his disciples ask him how to pray, Jesus teaches them to pray “…Deliver us from the Evil One…”

     As much as he was a teacher or a wonder worker, a prophet or a preacher or a revolutionary, Jesus was an exorcist.

And he understood his ministry as being not just for us but against the One whom he called the Adversary without who there is no Gospel. Because, according to the Gospel, our salvation is not a 2-person drama. It’s not a 2-person cast of God-in-Christ and us. It’s not a simple exchange brokered over our sin and his cross.

According to the Gospels, the Gospel is not just that Jesus died for your sin. The Gospel is that Jesus defeated Sin with a capital S. The Gospel is not just that Jesus suffered in your place. The Gospel is that Jesus overcame the One who holds you in your place.

It isn’t just that Jesus died your death. It’s that Jesus has delivered you from the Power of Death with a capital D, the one whom Paul calls the Enemy with a capital E.

According to scripture, there is a 3rd character in this story. There’s a third cast member to the salvation drama. We’re not only sinners before God. We’re captives to Another.  We’re unwitting accomplices and slaves and victims of Another.

It’s true that when we call Jesus ‘Lord’ we confess he’s Lord of all creation, but the underside of our confession, the necessary correlative to it, is that the creation of which Jesus is Lord is held in bondage by a Captor.

To confess Jesus as Lord of Creation is to profess that Jesus will free the creation from the Powers that contend against him and hold creation in captivity. 

As Paul himself points out at the end of his summary of the 8 part Gospel: “Then comes the end, when he hands over the Kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is Death.” – 1 Corinthians 15

The place in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul most often confesses Jesus as Lord, the Letter to the Romans, is also the place where Paul devotes the most attention to the anti-god Powers that would rule in opposition to God. As the ancient commentator, Ambrosiastor,  observed about Paul’s epistle to the Romans: “The entire letter is about the defeat of the Power of Satan.”

 

In this lectionary conversation, Taylor and I look at Genesis 25.19-34, Isaiah 55.10-13, Romans 8.1-11, Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23.
What if we’re stuck with the soil we’ve got?
What if our entire lives are about wrestling with God?
These questions and more in this episode of Strangely Warmed.

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     I continued our summer sermon series through Romans by preaching on one of Paul’s most famous (and most significant) passages, 7.14-25:

“For I know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under Sin. I do not understand our own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very things we hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the Law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but Sin that dwells within me. 
For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but Sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a Law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the Law of God in my inmost selves, but I see within me another Law at war with the Law of my mind, making me captive to the Law of Sin that dwells within me.
Wretched creatures that I am!
Who will rescue me from this body of death? Jesus Christ our Lord! Thanks be to God!”

     “I’d seen women who admitted to having an abortion receive forgiveness, and I’d noticed how women who had kept their babies seemed somehow harder to forgive. But the more I thought about abortion, the more I knew I couldn’t go through with it. 

     In my view, abortion is taking a life that belongs to God alone, and I couldn’t do that. I chose what I believed to be the good; I didn’t know all this would follow from my decision.” 

Maybe you read the story in the Washington Post a few weeks ago. Or maybe you caught it on CBS, Fox, or CNN (FAKE NEWS).

Maddi Runkles, soon to be a freshman at Bob Jones University, is an 18 year old graduate of Heritage Academy, a private Christian high school in Frederick, Maryland.

She’s also in her second trimester and due in the fall.

According to her own first-person account in the Washington Post, Maddi Runkles was a straight A student at Heritage Academy. She sported a 4.0 GPA and she played forward on the school soccer team. She was president of the Student Council and vice-president of the Key Club.  She volunteered every Sunday in her Baptist Church’s nursery and taught at Vacation Bible School every summer. Maddi was by her own testimony an over-achieving, brown-nosing, not just a good but a perfect student.

She out-Wobegoned all the children of Lake Wobegone. She was successful at everything except thing.

She failed to keep her chastity pledge.

She was born again and soon to give birth.

When Maddi Runkles confessed her secret to her parents late this winter, they bucked the stereotype of conservative Christian parents. They did not scorn their daughter. Her Dad even told her: “God is in this somewhere with you and we’ll be with you too.” 

Before you smile and tear up, let me tell you about her school.

As word of Maddi’s sin got out, Heritage Academy convened their school board for an emergency meeting where they moved to strip Maddi of all her leadership positions in the student body. They kicked her off the soccer team. They suspended her. They even told her she could not attend her younger brother’s baseball games.

They didn’t hand her a big, fat red A for her letter jacket, but they did they ban her from campus until after she delivered her baby.

The school board even called a school-wide student assembly where Maddi confessed her transgression to her peers, expressed repentance, and asked for their forgiveness.

Nevertheless, the school board informed Maddi that while they would permit her to receive her diploma, they would not allow her to walk with her classmates at the graduation ceremony.

That was the straw.

The board’s decision to exclude Maddi from her graduation provoked a public outcry, which emboldened Maddi’s family to fight the graduation ban. When Maddi’s story went viral and the school started to receive mocking press coverage, her community’s reflex was to protect the school.

Eventually, her community turned on her, making the Runkles family the object of nasty emails, inflammatory social media posts, rude remarks in public, and dangerous threats in private. Some of Maddi’s friends from Heritage Academy, seeing their school in danger, said she was spoiled and seeking publicity.

They slut-shamed her.

They attend bible class at Heritage Academy for an hour every school day.

In a letter to the parents, the principal of Heritage Academy wrote that Maddi was “being disciplined not because she is pregnant but because she is immoral…the best way to love her- (pay attention to the words) the good we can do for her right now- is to hold her accountable for her morality that began this situation.” 

     The best way to love her…the good we can do for her.

According to the New York Times, Maddi Runkles keeps an ultrasound photo of her baby on her nightstand. It’s a boy. She refers to him as a “blessing.”

Nevertheless, Maddi confessed to the reporter:

“I chose life. I chose (pay attention to the words) the good, but now that I see what my decision has produced…sometimes it feels like it wasn’t worth it.”

For that very reason, that Maddi Runkles would even entertain regret over what she believed had been the good and right act of not seeking an abortion, pro-life organizations like March for Life and Students for Life rallied to her side.

As Jeanne Mancini, President of March for Life pointed out to the Post:

“In the manner they held Maddi accountable, Heritage Academy, a vigorously anti-abortion school, has made it more likely that future students like Maddi will choose to have an abortion.”

     The theologian Karl Barth said that preachers should approach the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other. What Barth meant was that the world, as its described in the Good News of the Gospel- becomes clearer to see when you find it confirmed by and corroborated in the pages of your newspaper.

    Here’s what readers of both the newspaper and today’s scripture text should ask:

In choosing the good of carrying her baby to term, did Maddi Runkles seek to split her school and community apart?

In holding Maddi accountable did Heritage Academy mean to shame and stigmatize her? Was it their goal to encourage other students to opt for abortion in the future?

Did the Heritage school board intend to undermine their school and do its reputation damage by enforcing what they took to be the integrity of the honor code?

Of course, the answer to all of the above is “No.”

The bitter irony- the bitter biblical irony- is that everyone involved was doing what they took to be the good. Everyone involved was doing what they took to be the good.

But through them…

     Through them, a different outcome entirely was worked.

     And the passive voice there reveals everything.

——————-

     If the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans was a play instead of an epistle, it it was a script with a Dramatis Personnae at the beginning, then it would be obvious even before you read it that in Romans Sin has a starring role.

Now, I know, if you all wanted to hear about sin, you wouldn’t have fled your Baptist and Catholic upbringings for a denomination where our only strong conviction is that ‘God is nice.’

You all don’t want to hear about sin; no one wants to hear about sin anymore.

But the drama of Paul’s Gospel story of rectification by grace is unintelligible without Sin as a primary cast member. Paul’s plot is incomplete without Sin as a main character.

Don’t buy it?

In all of his letters, Paul uses the word sin (hamartia) 81 times, more than he uses any other word. Of those 81 times, 60 occur in his Letter to the Romans. Over 2/3 of those usages occur right here in this chunk of Romans, chapters 5-8.

I realize you don’t want to hear about sin in church, but you need to realize the sin you don’t want to hear about in church is not sin as Paul most often uses the word in Romans.

Sin, for Paul, is not primarily a behavior. Sin is not something we do. Sin is not pre-marital sex, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, or self-righteously slut-shaming a teenage girl.

Sin is not something we do; Sin is a Something that Does.

Sin is not a lowercase transgression. Sin is an uppercase Power. A Power that ensnares and enslaves and stands over and against God. Sin is a Power whose ultimate defeat the cross and resurrection portend. Sin is an Agency- a Power synonymous with the Power of Satan. It’s Sin with a capital S.

Just notice how Paul here in Romans 7 doesn’t use Sin as the verb we do but as the subjects of its own verbs: “…it is no longer I that do it, but Sin that dwells within me.”

And again in verse 20: “…if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it but Sin that dwells within me…” 

Literally, in the Greek, it’s:

“…if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it but Sin that has set up a base of operations within me.”

It’s a military term. Just as he has in the preceding chapters, the language Paul uses here in Romans 7 is the language of battle and war.

Sin isn’t an attribute of us; Sin is an Antagonist against us.

Sin isn’t a character flaw in you- that’s the sin no one wants to hear about in church.

Sin isn’t a character flaw in you. Sin is cosmic terrorist that can invade even you.

Sin is an Enemy that can set up a base of operations within you.

  ———————

     Notice what Paul doesn’t say in Romans 7.

     Notice that Paul doesn’t say he is unable to do the good that he wants to do.

Paul doesn’t say he is incapable of willing the good he wishes to accomplish.

The problem isn’t that he’s impotent to will the good. The problem is not that he knows the good in his head but he can’t bring his heart or his hands to choose it.

No, that’s not it. The problem isn’t that he’s impotent. The problem is that he is not.

He wills the good that he wants to do- he is able. He does the good he wants to do, but, in doing the good, what he produces, what his good act accomplishes is unrecognizable to his intention.

No good deed goes unpunished, we say. But what Paul is saying: every good deed turns out as a kind of punishment. Every good deed ends up destructive.

     “I can will what is right, but I cannot accomplish it. For I do not end up doing the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I accomplish.” 

     Don’t let the switch to the first-person singular in chapter 7 fool you. Paul hasn’t changed the subject. Paul’s not describing his inner conflict; Paul’s describing an invasion.

His problem isn’t a divided self but a self enslaved to Another. As he says plainly in verse 14, he’s talking about the Self bound to a Slave Master.

Paul’s not narrating shock at seeing what he has done despite his best intentions. He’s narrating the shock at seeing what Sin has done through him, disguised in his best intentions.

William Faulkner said the theme of all lasting literature is the human heart in conflict with itself. Faulkner may be right about literature, but Paul is not writing fiction.

Paul isn’t writing here about the human heart in conflict with itself. Paul doesn’t mean that there is an alter-ego within each us, contending against us. No, Paul means that there is an Antagonist at work in the world, contending against God, an Alien Power that can reach as far down as into us and twist even our good works to evil.

We can will Life, Paul says, but through us Sin can will Death.

And not just through us- Paul says the contagion of Sin’s reach extends even into God’s own Law:

“The Law is holy and just and good. But Sin, seizing an opportunity in the Law, deceived me and through the Law killed me.”

     You see, this is why Paul argues so aggressively against requiring Gentile converts to obey the Jewish Law. It’s why he’s so adamant that requiring Gentile converts to follow the Law is in fact a false Gospel.

It’s not because the Law in and of itself is bad or evil. And it’s not simply that Paul wants to lower the bar for admission because adult circumcision is a tough sell.

It’s that the Law has been taken hostage by the Power of Sin such that the faithful religious person in their service to God actually serves the Lordship of Sin.

That’s the awful mystery with which Paul wrestles here in Romans 7.

It’s not the mystery of the human heart in conflict with itself.

It’s the mystery of God’s Law and God’s People twisted, unwittingly, into conflict against God.

It’s the horror that the Power of Sin can co-opt and contravene even the religion God gave us; so that, the outcome of our faithful actions ends up in contradiction to their intent.

     The awful mystery with which Paul wrestles here is that even in serving God the religious person can in fact be serving God’s Enemy.

And if you need an example of what Paul has in mind by this awful mystery, Exhibit A is hanging on the altar wall.

Look at that and listen to Paul again:

      “I can will what is right, but I cannot accomplish it. For I do not end up doing the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I produce.” 

     Evil is not it’s own agency. Evil is what the Power of Sin does through the minions it fools and conscripts as accomplices. Through the Law, through Religion, through People of Piety.

For 6 chapters, the Apostle Paul has been narrating Sin’s long resume. He’s called it a Power. He’s called it a King. He’s called it a Wage-Master and a Slaver-Taker. He’s given it adjectives like Dominion and Lordship. He’s given it synonyms like Death and Satan.

But on Sin’s resume, Paul saves this talk of the Law and the Enslaved Self for last.

Paul saves the worst for last.

He saves the Law and the enslaved “I” for last because for Paul there is no more awful accomplishment of Sin, no grosser testament to the demonic Power of Sin than Sin’s ability to pervert even the best of our piety, to make a wretch of the most sincere religious person, to take even our godly obedience- even our obedience– and twist it to ungodly ends.

Paul saves the worst for last. The Power of Sin is so insidious that the biggest threat to your soul…is you.

     Show of hands-

     Heritage Academy’s Principal, David Hobbs- how many of you think that he heard about Maddi Runkles’ pregnancy and said to himself “I think I’m going to shame and stigmatize a student today.”

Do you think Principal David Hobbs woke up one morning and said to himself “I think I’d like to drag my school’s reputation through the mud, make its leaders look like hypocrites, and make our religion look ridiculous and shallow.”

Do you think he and his school board members put their heads together and chose to be the bad guys in the story?

If your reaction to this newspaper story is to villainize the principal and the school board members as stigmatizing, self-righteous, slut-shaming sexists, if your immediate impulse is to judge them, then you’re not hearing the Apostle Paul today.

     It’s only in comic books that villains choose to be villains.

And only in comic books do the villains know they are villains from the get-go.

     The rest of us, St. Paul says, we set out to serve the Good.

We set out to serve God.

And only later discover ourselves to be serving his Enemy.

By all accounts Principal David Hobbs is a much experienced and much more beloved educator.

He and the school board reached their decision to discipline Maddi only after “much prayer and scripture-study and spiritual discernment.”  In an interview, Principal Hobbs said:  “We do believe in forgiveness, but forgiveness does not mean there is no accountability.” 

And guess what? He’s right.

Forgiveness is not the opposite of accountability; in fact, forgiveness without accountability is what the Church calls cheap grace.

In that same interview, Principal Hobbs explained: “We teach our students about the beauty of marriage and that sex inside marriage is what Christians believe God desires for marriage and is one of the attributes that makes it beautiful.” 

Again, he’s right. That is what the Church teaches, what all Christian traditions teach.

     The good that David Hobbs and the Heritage Academy school board pursued is a godly good.

     And yet- and yet…through them…

As Kristen Hawkins, President of Students for Life, said to the Washington Post:

     “What this school is doing in advocating for Christian morality is the antithesis of being Christian.”

What they’ve done is the antithesis of what they sought to do.

Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it: “Sin, seizing an opportunity in their Religion, deceived them and through them…” 

Maddi Runkles and Heritage Academy Christian School- that’s just one small story ripped from the newspaper.

Never mind what Karl Barth said, you don’t need the New York Times. 

     Just think about your own daily domestic destruction- we do the most damage to the people we love most and, most often, the damage we do we do in trying to do them good.

Or rather, we don’t do them damage.

But through us…through us…

The Power that has set up a base of operations within us…

Can pervert even our best and most faithful and loving intentions.

——————-

    Christians like Principal David Hobbs, Christians like the school board members at Heritage Academy, Christians like Maddi Runkle’s slut-shaming friends- they’re all the kinds of Christians who make Non-Christians write off Christianity.

Let’s face it-

That’s how Maddi’s story made it into outlets like the New York Times; it’s a salacious story that undermines Christianity in the public eye.

But frankly, I’m sick and tired of people who try to dismiss Christianity because every Sunday Christians like you are just as petty and racist and passive aggressive and sexist and corrupt and apathetic and hypocritical and greedy as everyone else.

Really, Christians like Principal David Hobbs and the Heritage Academy school board members and the straight A, born again slut-shamers…

Imperfect and immoral and hypocritical Christians like you-

You’re not an argument against Christianity

You’re the best argument for Christianity.

Because if St. Paul is right

If the Power of Sin is so insidious it can pervert even the best of our piety

Twist our most godly acts to ungodly ends

Then that means absolutely NO ONE

No one can claim that they do not need Jesus Christ.

If the Power of Sin is such that it can turn God’s saints into unwitting servants of God’s Enemy, if even the best of us cannot be good, then nothing you do can be relied upon to make you right with God, to rectify the balance sheet of your life, to justify you before the judgement of God.

If Paul is right about the Power of Sin, then nothing you do- not your piety or your prayers, not your religion or your resume, not your good deeds or your good name, not your charity or your character or your career or your church attendance, not your beliefs or your bible study- nothing you do can be relied upon to justify you before God because in all of it, Paul says, you could just as likely be serving God’s Enemy.

If Paul is right, if the Power of Sin is such that it can pervert what we do for  God for the Enemy’s own ends, then we can never trust what we have done.

We can never trust what we have done to justify us.

We can only ever trust what God has done for us.

Imperfect, impatient, petty, immoral, hypocritical Christians- you’re the best argument for Christianity because if the Power of Sin is such that it can corrupt even you then NO ONE, absolutely NO ONE, NOBODY can say that they do not need the justification that God offers us by grace alone in Jesus Christ.

No one-

No one here

And no one who would never be caught dead in here

No one

Religious or Irreligious

Secular or Spiritual

Christian or Non-Christian

Sinner or Supposed Saint

     No one can say they do not need the grace offered in Jesus Christ.

Because no one can say for sure that in serving God…

They haven’t actually been serving Another instead.

The fact is- you don’t need to believe Paul.

The truth of it is all over the newspaper every day.

We can never be certain which Lord we’re really serving.

Which makes you- me- the perfect argument not against the Gospel but for it. Because the Gospel message is that no matter what you have done, because of what Christ has done, regardless of what Lord you have served, our Lord declares you in the right. As a gift.

That’s good news.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Doug Powe recently stepped into a new role as the director of the Lewis Center at Wesley Theological Seminary. In this episode, we catch up with Dr. Powe to talk about urban theology and ways churches can rally together in times where most UM churches are trying to brace for what is to come.

From a little venture with Teer and Morgan to nurture my friendships with them, we’ve grown to be one of the top 3.5% of all podcasts on the interwebs. If podcasts were churches, we’d be one of the largest UMC’s out there- and it’s all because of you and your support!

Coming up on the podcast:

We’ve got a cross-over 4th of July podcast with Tripp Fuller of Home-brewed Christianity. 

Stay tuned.

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Podcast partner Teer Hardy and I were guests on Tripp Fuller‘s Home-Brewed Christianity Podcast recently to talk about Patriotism, Idolatry, and Allegiance to Christ our Lord.

Tripp needed some members of the Hauerwas Mafia so obviously he called us.

Check it out here.

 

 

 

Freedom is Free

Jason Micheli —  July 4, 2017 — 1 Comment

Jesus Christ, the Predestined One, is the only fully free human being.

Christ is so liberated as to free others from their captivities and deliver them into the divine freedom we call Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

For God to be free is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.

Likewise, as creatures made in this God’s image, our freedom is necessarily freedom ‘for’ others NOT freedom ‘from’ external constraint or obligation to others.

Liberty is not independence but rightly ordererd dependence on God.

We are free when we are unhindered and unconstrained from acting towards the ‘Goodness’ that is God, in which we all move and live and have our being.

We’re free in that we share in Christ’s freedom by our baptism and through our faith.

That freedom is freedom in Christ and, like Christ, is freedom for others reminds us that how normally think of the word ‘free’ (to have a will independent of any other agent) involes a false, idolatrous notion of God, for it pictures a god who inhabits the universe, existing alongside creatures, sometimes interfering with their lives and other times no, leaving them alone to be ‘free.’

Yet everything that exists exists- at every moment of its existence- because of the creative act of God.

Nothing that is can be except because of God, including our free spontaneous choices.

God is the Source of our free actions; therefore, there is no such thing as a human action independent of God. Our free acts are also, part and parcel, God’s creative acts. This does not constrain us; it is by them that we are ourselves.

Free will then cannot mean our acting apart from or independent of God acting upon us. Rather, like Christ, freedom means fully cooperating with the action of God.

Freedom is embracing grace, the free gift of God in Christ. As the Apostle Paul says, we are most free in slavery and conformity to Jesus Christ.

     My colleague Karla Kincannon lost her Dad late Saturday morning. I filled in for her at the last minute, continuing our summer series in Romans with 8.32-39.

I know everyone prefers the Holy Grail, but have you seen the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian?

It’s set in first-century Judaea when the Jewish opposition to the Romans is hopelessly split into factions.

There’s a scene where one of the splinter groups has a secret meeting where a vigilante soldier asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

One by one his fellow freedom-fighters grudgingly admit a host of benefits the Romans have brought the Jews. But Reggie, their leader, remains unconvinced.

Reggie finally demands, “All right … all right … but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order … what have the Romans done for us?”

To which the reply comes, “Brought peace.”

And Reggie has no answer.

Not only did the Romans bring the world sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order and peace (by the sword), they also brought to the world a clear understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

Caesar not only knew how to dig a sewer, pitch an aqueduct, and make a killer salad, Caesar knew better than most of you the fundamental claim of Christianity.

Around 112, a Roman civil servant named Pliny, who was Governor of Bithynia in what is modern Turkey, wrote a letter to the Caesar of his day, the Roman Emperor Trajan.

In the letter Pliny sought to offer explanation to Caesar for how he’d decided to deal with these strangers and dissidents he had encountered. These people called Christians.

Some of these Christians Pliny punished.

Some he tortured and executed.

Still others, those who were Roman citizens, like Paul, he transferred back to Rome.

But not every Christian kept the faith. Not a few offered to go cold turkey and give up the faith in the face of persecution. What about them?

What did Pliny do with them? What did Rome require of them?

————————

     You can tell how Rome understood the key conviction of Christianity from what Rome required as proof of its renunciation.

To prove to Caesar that you forsook your Christian faith the Empire required that you offer a sacrifice of meat and wine and incense- in other words, a sacrifice of worship- before a statue of the Emperor.

And while you did so, before the image of the Emperor, you needed to confess.

To profess: “Caesar is Lord.”

And notice, Pliny didn’t invite renunciants to confess ‘Caesar is Lord’ in private.

Pliny didn’t ask them to make a personal profession.

Pliny didn’t invite them to close their eyes, bow their heads, and raise their hands if they accepted the Lordship of Caesar in their hearts.

No, he required a public display of loyalty.

He insisted upon a public pledge.

    What Rome required of Christians to renounce their faith points out exactly what Christians affirmed when they converted to it.

Pliny saw with cold clarity what many Christians today miss:

that loyalty and obedience to Jesus as sovereign Lord is not only the climax of what God has done in cross and resurrection, confessing Jesus Christ is Lord is also the fundamental claim of Christianity.

So it’s not just roads and sewers and salads Rome has brought us; it’s also a clear-eyed understanding:

The core of being a Christian is pledging allegiance to Jesus as Lord.

What Rome required for Christians to exit their faith is exactly what St. Paul says is required for Christians to enter it.

Two chapters later in his Letter to the Romans, Paul writes that “If you confess with your lips that Jesus Christ is Lord…you will be saved” (10.9-10).

And the word Paul uses there for confess is homologeo. It means, literally: “a public declaration of allegiance.”

Notice Paul doesn’t say If you confess that Jesus fulfills the promise to Abraham, then you will be saved. Paul doesn’t write that if you confess that Jesus is God in the flesh then you will be saved. Paul doesn’t say that in order to be saved you must confess that Jesus died for your sins. He doesn’t say you need to confess Jesus as your Substitute. He doesn’t say you need to confess Jesus as Sacrifice, Savior, Son of Man, or Son of God.

Paul gives an altogether different kind of altar call.

When it comes to salvation, Paul focuses squarely on a single, specific confession: the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Because, that’s the chapter in the Gospel story we now occupy.

That’s the point in the Apostles Creed where we all live. The incarnation and the crucifixion, the resurrection and our reconciliation to God- those are all past perfect events.

But right now, present-tense, Jesus sits at the right hand of God and to him the Father has given dominion over the earth.

He is. 

     Now. Lord.

     “If you confess…

“If you publicly pledge your allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord…then you will be saved” Paul says.

Rome helps us see that Christianity is about choosing.

Choosing between rival claims upon us.

If Pliny understood that to swear Caesar is Lord was to forswear Jesus as Lord, then the logic follows:

to repent and confess that Jesus is Lord was to reject and condemn other lords.

And Pliny points out, you cannot offer allegiance in a vacuum.

To be allegiant is always and at once to be against. Like we rehearse in baptism, affirmation is always a simultaneous renunciation. The very act of pledging allegiance presumes other powers contending and vying for your loyalty.

The word allegiance is unintelligible without an enemy.

     If God is for us, who is against us? Who will bring any charge against us? Who will condemn? Who will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?

     No matter how you’re accustomed to hearing this crescendo in Romans 8, Paul’s not asking rhetorical questions. It’s more like a fill-in-the-blank. The Apostle Paul has already supplied you with the answers.

     If God is for us, who is against us? 

Come on, that’s not even a Tuesday crossword kind of question.

     If God is for us, who is against us? 

The Power of Sin, that’s who.

Sin with a capital S, an alien, enslaving Power, whose power, Paul has already told us, we are all under and from whom not one of us is able to free ourselves.

    Who will bring any charge against us? Who is to condemn us? 

Again, they’re not rhetorical questions. The answer is obvious to anyone who’s been listening to Paul.

The Law will bring charges against us. Or, if it’s easier to understand, instead of Law call it Scripture or Religion. Scripture will condemn us.

Religion, the Law, which, Paul has already told us, the Power of Sin has hijacked and now wields like a weapon against us, so that now the very gift God gave to make us righteous only indicts us, all of us- all for short- as unrighteousness, indicts us, even, as ungodly.

    Who will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? 

The answer, obvious to anyone who’s been following Paul’s argument thus far: Death.

Death will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Death with a capital D, a Power, Paul says, that from Adam onward advanced through all the world like an invading army.

Death with a capital D, a Power that Paul makes synonymous with the Power of Sin, both of which, Paul reveals at the end of his letter, refer to the Power of Satan, whom Paul calls at the end of his summary of the Gospel the Last Enemy.

“For Christ our Lord must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is Death.” – 1 Corinthians 15

     Who is against? Who will condemn us?  Who will separate us?

They’re not rhetorical questions.

The very reason Paul testifies that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus is because there are Powers in the world at work against us to do just that.

The Power of Sin. The Power of Death. The Law.

     All of whom- pay attention now- Paul personifies as reigning monarchs, as exercising dominion, as lords.

Kurios.

The same word Paul uses when he says: “If you publicly pledge your allegiance to Jesus Christ as kurios…then you will be saved” Paul says.

————————

     Pliny understood that to pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord was to be against another lord, that to accept Jesus’s Lordship was to reject another’s.

But Pliny did not understand what Paul saw.

Caesar, Rome- they’re manifestations of a bigger, more cosmic enemy contending against God to separate us- indeed all of creation- from God.

Here at the end of chapter 8, after Paul has been speaking of life in the Spirit and the freedom we have in Christ, after Paul has led you to believe all this talk of the Power of Sin and the Power of Death is behind you-

Here at the end of Romans chapter 8 Paul doubles back again.

But this time spins it out onto a wider horizon, naming the circumstances where the lords of Sin and Death manifest themselves in our world:

Hardship

Injustice

Persecution

Famine

Nakedness

War

Paul asks ‘Can these separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?’ because Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War- they don’t just happen- they are the ways that the rival lords of Sin and Death work to do just that.

Separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Because it’s easy to look at Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War and become disillusioned.

It’s easy to look at unending war in Afghanistan and terror in Europe and another shooting- this time in Little Rock- the opiod epidemic, hunger in school kids not two miles from here, homelessness no further, the Washington Nationals Bullpen.

     Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War-

They are the ‘statues of Caesar’ before whom a Power who is not God would us bow in allegiance.

Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War- they don’t just happen, Paul says- instead they are the ways that the rival lords of Sin and Death tempt us to break faith.

To break allegiance. To become loyal to them.      On Thursday, I went with my good friend Brian Stolarz, a member here at Aldersgate, to the steps of the Supreme Court for a teach-in against the death penalty.

There I listened to Brian agains the story he’s told here of getting an innocent man, a mentally handicapped man, a black mentally handicapped man, it usually goes without saying, off of death row.

There was a crowd of exonerees gathered there in front of the Supreme Court with stories similar to Brian’s, stories of persecution and racism.

There was a petition passed around to stay the execution this coming week in Virginia of a mentally ill man.

It’s hard to go to an event like that, where the injustice seems rampant and the odds for change seem long indeed, and not feel disillusioned.

Not feel like you’ve pledged allegiance to the wrong Lord.

On Friday, Dennis and I went to Mt. Vernon Hospital to be with Karla Kincannon and her family as Karla’s Dad slowly died.

We talked and we prayed and we kept quiet as Chuck’s wife of 70 years whispered to him and caressed his cheeks and kissed his forehead.

And watching her cry it became obvious what a lie we tell when we call death ‘natural’ or when we try to label a funeral a ‘celebration of life.’

No, that’s a lie.

Paul’s right, Death is an enemy.

The Enemy.

And it surrounds us such that it’s easy to lose heart.

———————

“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 33Who will bring any charge against us? It is God who rectifies. 34Who is to condemn? 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

If you just stick this passage from Romans 8 onto a Hallmark card, if you just gild it with sentimentally at a memorial service, you completely miss Paul’s point.

As my New Testament teacher at Princeton, Dr. Beverly Gaventa, points out, these verses here in Romans 8 it’s trash-talk.

It’s Paul trash-talking the Powers. It’s Paul talking smack against the Power of Sin.

It’s trash-talk.

Paul widens the horizon to encompass all of creation and there Paul sees all the tragic circumstances in which we live. And he sees behind them not the work of enemies like Caesar or Trajan or Pliny but the Enemy. And against the Enemy, the Power of Sin and Death, Paul musters up as much confidence as he can for his Roman Church and he declares defiantly that God will have the last word.

It’s Paul encouraging allegiance to Christ the Lord in the face of rival lords who would lure away your loyalty.

Because, let’s face, it seems like they’re in charge.

It’s trash-talk.

It’s Paul shaking his fist at the Power of Sin and Death.

It’s Paul talking smack at Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War.

     It’s Paul staring them all down, thumbing his nose, and giving them all the finger.

It’s trash-talk.

None of you- not Death, not Famine, not Racism, not War, not Poverty, not Addiction- has the power to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

“No power has the power like Christ’s power!” Paul says literally in the Greek.

Or, as we might say, you’re going down.

You see, if Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War and all the rest- if they’re the ways that Sin and Death seek to lure your loyalty away from Jesus the Lord-

Then that means that to give in to despair or disillusionment, to lose heart, is to give your allegiance to rival lords who have been working against you for that very outcome.

You pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ, therefore, not with your head looking up but with your eyes fixed straight ahead at the world as it really is.

And you pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ not with your hand over your heart but with your fist shaking at the sky and your middle finger sticking straight out.

Flipping off the Powers and trash-talking all the other lords who would pull you away from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist “Church” in Dallas is following up last Sunday’s worship idolatry “Patriotic Sunday” with a concert at the Kennedy Center this Saturday. I blogged about it here. Along with President Trump, Jeffress will debut the new “praise” song “Making America Great Again.”

Where’s Woody Guthrie when you need him?

‘Pastor’ Jeffress’ golden calf shenanigans this week got me thinking of Monty Python and Pliny, the Roman Governor, in that order.

I know everyone prefers the Holy Grail, but have you seen the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian?

It’s set in first-century Judaea when the Jewish opposition to the Romans is hopelessly split into factions.

There’s a scene where one of the splinter groups has a secret meeting where a vigilante soldier asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

One by one his fellow freedom-fighters grudgingly admit a host of benefits the Romans have brought the Jews. But Reggie, their leader, remains unconvinced.

Reggie finally demands, “All right … all right … but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order … what have the Romans done for us?”

To which the reply comes, “Brought peace.”

And Reggie has no answer.

Not only did the Romans bring the world sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order and peace (by the sword), they also brought to the world a clear understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

Rome not only knew how to dig a sewer and pitch an aqueduct, they knew better than many Christians today know the fundamental claim of Christianity.

Around 112, a Roman civil servant named Pliny, who was Governor of Bithynia  in what is modern Turkey, wrote a letter to the Roman Emperor, Trajan, offering explanation for how he’d decided to deal with these strangers and dissidents he’d encountered called Christians.

Some he punished. Some he tortured and executed. Still others, those who were like Paul, Roman citizens, he transferred back to Rome.

But what about those Christians who, in the face of persecution, offered to cease being a Christian?

You can tell how Rome understood the key conviction of Christianity from what Rome required as proof of its renunciation.

To prove to Roman authorities that you forsook your Christian faith the Empire required that you offer a sacrifice of meat and wine and incense before a statue of the Emperor while confessing “Caesar is Lord.”

And notice, Pliny didn’t invite renouncing Christians to confess ‘Caesar is Lord’ in private. Pliny didn’t ask them to make a personal profession. Pliny didn’t gather them all together, have them close their eyes and bow their heads, and ask them to raise their hands if they accepted the Lordship of Caesar.

No, he required a public display of loyalty.

He insisted upon a public pledge.

When so many Christians today think being a Christian is about inviting Jesus into their hearts to be a personal Lord and Savior (whatever that means) or having faith in him, and when so many others think it’s primarily about following Jesus’ teachings or, even worse, that it’s about belonging to an institution, Pliny saw that loyalty and obedience to Jesus as present-tense Sovereign Lord was the fundamental claim of Christianity.

What Rome required of Christians to renounce their faith points out exactly what Christians affirmed when they converted to their faith.

Christianity, Rome helps us see, is about choosing between rival and irreconcilable claims upon us.

If Pliny understood that to swear Caesar is ‘Lord’ was to forswear Jesus as Lord, then it follows that to repent and confess Jesus meant to reject and condemn the another’s lordship.

So it’s not just roads and sewers and medicine and peace, Rome has brought us; it’s also a clear-eyed understanding that the core of being a Christian is pledging allegiance to Jesus as Lord.

And allegiance, Pliny points out for us, cannot be offered in a vacuum. To be allegiant is always and at once to be against. Affirmation is a simultaneous renunciation. The very act of pledging allegiance presumes an other contending for your loyalty.

Most often defined as faith or belief, the pistis word group in the Greek New Testament can convey a range of meanings. It can mean belief, faith, confidence, trust, conviction, assurance, fidelity, commitment, faithfulness, reliability, or obedience.

But, as Matthew Bates argues in his new book, if the stage we occupy in the Creed and Gospel story is the present-tense reign of Jesus as Lord and King of heaven and earth against whose rule rival Powers contend, then the strongest and clearest definition of pistis/faith is allegiance.

Caesar didn’t care whether his subjects believed in him.

Caesar cared whether his subjects were loyal to him.

Likewise, if Jesus is Lord then we are his subjects and faithfulness to a King entails not trust so much as allegiance.

Defining faith in terms of allegiance makes clear that what’s expected of us as subjects of the Lord Jesus is an embodied faithfulness that renders the distinctions between ‘faith’ and ‘works,’ a personal Lord and a Cosmic Lord, moot, for a subject cannot be loyal to a King while not heeding the King’s commands.

Imagine what becomes possible when in recasting pistis in terms of allegiance.

For example, the Apostles Creed makes more obvious what is at stake in the profession:

“I pledge allegiance to God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth…and to Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…”

It works at Baptism too: “…do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior…pledge your allegiance to him…”

And at the Table: “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to give allegiance to him.”

Familiar scripture suddenly become like TNT when you redefine pistis: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and become allegiant to me.” Just that verse becomes an altar call that calls for a lot more than your mental assent or an affectation in your heart.

Or Paul: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who gives allegiance.” 

If faith is a matter of believing in Jesus, then Christians can disagree about the relative importance of racism, immigration, or poverty, dismissing it as ‘political.’

If faith is a matter of allegiance to Jesus, then how we address those issues might be debatable but that they merit our attention is no longer negotiable.

Translating pistis as allegiance just might be the way to make the Christian faith great again.

Stanley Hauerwas asserts that the essence of Christianity is:

“Jesus is Lord and everything else is bull@#$%.”

Hauerwas can make that claim because if Jesus is the present-tense Lord of the cosmos then the response of faith Jesus demands is best understood as allegiance, an allegiance that requires a readiness to call BS when we see it.

You do not have to believe in Jesus’ Lordship to know that the world is filled with rival lords vying for our loyalty and allegiance.

Or, simply working to dilute, confuse, or qualify our allegiance.

Again, witness Dr. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist “Church” of Dallas

When the Risen Jesus commissions the disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel he tells them the way they will manifest his lordship is by baptizing and making disciples of all nations; that is, Jesus commissions to plant churches. The life and practices of the church therefore are the ways we call BS on the Powers and Principalities who would have us think they’re in charge.

The ordinary practices Jesus has given us are the ways we stand before all the golden calves, be they statues of Caesar or Robert Jeffress’ civil religion pageantry, and call BS.

My man-crush muse David Bentley Hart asked to return to the podcast so he could get some gripes off his chest about the new president, critics of Pope Francis, and the role Christianity in the public square. DBH’s essay on Donald Trump and the Devil which I quote at the beginning of this episode can be found here.

If you don’t know already from the blog, David Bentley Hart was my first theology teacher when I was a first year undergrad at UVA and a relatively new Christian. He is the author of significant books such as the Beauty of the Infinite, the Doors of the Sea, and the Experience of God.

Be on the lookout for the second part of this conversation where David discusses his forthcoming translation of the New Translation and what he learned by going back to the Greek text without the presumptions modern translations have given him.

From a little venture with Teer and Morgan to nurture my friendships with them, we’ve grown to be one of the top 3.5% of all podcasts on the interwebs. If podcasts were churches, we’d be one of the largest UMC’s out there- and it’s all because of you and your support!

Coming up on the podcast:

We’ve got a cross-over 4th of July podcast with Tripp Fuller of Home-brewed Christianity. 

Stay tuned.

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And here I caught flack over bringing a goat into a worship service. Dr. Robert Jeffress somehow managed to shoot off fireworks in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church in Dallas. Then again, to call it a sanctuary misleads, for it’s evidently not the God of Jesus Christ First Baptist “Church” worships. At the very least, Jeffress isn’t monogamous.

This past Sunday Jeffress’ ‘church’ celebrated Patriotic Sunday, a display of devotion to an idol that could make the golden calf a jealous god.

Many Christians wrestle with whether sanctuaries should have flags in them all as the primary belonging of the baptized is to the Body of Christ to whom by faith we pledge our ultimate allegiance.

For Patriotic Sunday, First Baptist ‘Church’ handed worshippers flags to wave during the service. Fire works shot up from the floor. Flags festooned the walls and, on the altar wall- you know, where a freaking cross might go, the presidential seal.

Baptists like Jeffress often seem obsessed with whatever # of the 613 commandments is the levitical stipulation against same-sex intercourse, which is ironic given that they broke the first and most important commandment with an abandon that would’ve made the golden calf jealous.

Consider Jeffress so prioritized this expression of idolatry that First Baptist celebrated Patriotic Sunday not on the Sunday of Fourth of July weekend (when few attend worship) but on the Sunday before the long weekend.

Most Christians, even those who have little problem with a flag as part of the furniture in the sanctuary, aren’t as promiscuous in their fidelity as Jeffress’ tribe at First Baptist ‘Church’ in Dallas. Still, Independence Day is a delicate time for Christians not because love of home and heritage is contrary to Christian confession but because the story of America, particularly when its cast in terms of those who’ve died in its service (“Freedom isn’t free”) can become a story that is more powerfully felt by many Christians than the Gospel story.

I’ve experienced enough patriotic liturgies at baseball games to bet the house that many in Jeffress’ house of ‘worship’ last Sunday were crying sincere tears. I’m sure it was a profound and moving religious experience for them. That’s the freaking problem.

As Christians, we have to be cautious that we’re not more moved by the love of those who lay their lives down for their countrymen than we are moved by Christ who lays his life down not for his neighbors and nation but for the ungodly.

War, as Stanley Hauerwas acknowledges, is beautiful precisely in the noble and heroic virtues it can call out of us and therein lies the danger of patriotism for Christians: it presents a powerful rival liturgy to the communion liturgy.

Like all liturgy, the liturgy of patriotism forms us. It’s meant to form us.

Like any other good in our lives, Christians (at least those in America) must be mindful about seeing in it the potential temptation that is ever before us; namely, the lure to make our national story more keenly felt than our Gospel story.

Just because golden calves seem stupid doesn’t mean we’re any more immune than Israel was from offering God a qualified or confused obedience. If we can’t serve God and Mammon, as Jesus teaches, then we have to be discerning about God and Country too.

If you doubt the temptation I’ve posed actually exists, the lure of a rival counter-liturgy to the Gospel liturgy, consider how no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even to die for it. They even sing the National Anthem at my boys’ swim meets. And that’s fine.

Except

People do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’

Why is it that the only convictions we’re willing to inculcate into our children for which they might one day have to suffer and die is not our Christian convictions but our American ones?

How is it that we consider our children’s American convictions non-negotiable, but we deem their Christian convictions something they can choose for themselves, something about which they can make up their own minds?

It’s just this kind of equivocation that produces a ‘church’ like Jeffress’ First Baptist in Dallas and makes possible an idolatrous display like Patriotic Sunday.

It’s true, freedom isn’t free, but for Christians that means “Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to set us free (past perfect tense) from the present evil aeon” (present tense).

Paul uses the language of time all the time.

According to Paul, the Gospel is that God has invaded the present evil age, that in the cross and resurrection the old age has been destroyed, and we have been transitioned into a new time in which Jesus Christ reigns with all dominion, and power, and glory.

Christians aren’t people who occupy one space, the Church, within another space, the Nation. Christians are People who live under, belong to, participate in a different time: the New Aeon inaugurated by Jesus Christ.

No wonder he didn’t celebrate Patriotic Sunday on the 4h of July weekend.

Dr. Jeffress doesn’t seem to know what time it is.

He pulled his earbuds out.

He was working out on the crotch machine. You know the piece of equipment. The one where you exercise your thighs by pushing in and out like the levers of a pinball machine; the one that appears designed for no other purpose than to equip the exerciser for feats of ecstatic prowess.

“I was just listening to your sermon from Sunday.”

‘You can listen to sermons while you work out?’ I said.

You listen to my voice while you’re sex-ercising?! I thought.

‘Yeah, I listen to you guys’ sermons every week when I come here.’

‘It’s not repetitive, hearing it all over again a second time?’

‘Repetitive?’ he asked confused. He added another 10 lbs and started a second set on the crotch machine, and then my assumption about his Sunday attendance washed over his face, “No, I haven’t been to Sunday Church in forever. Just so busy, you know? Work. Kids. Soccer and Lacrosse.’

He closed his eyes and, in the words of Salt N’ Peppa, pushed it real good. ‘That’s why the podcast and the online giving are so great. I can get the message whenever wherever I am and I don’t need the offering plate to make my contribution.’

‘That’s great’ I said to him.

‘That’s not great’ I thought in the same instant and walked off to the locker room for what became a long sobering shower.

In fact, I run into people like him all the time. At the grocery and the pool and the barber shop. Even the chemo ward. In the checkout aisle and in the mens room at the local pizza dive, people tell me they listened to my sermon on their phone.

The numbers bear out their testimony. In my 12 years in this parish, total worship attendance has remained stable at around 600 per Sunday; however, in that time frequency of worship attendance has declined precipitously. The average worshipper now attends on Sunday morning only twice a month, every other Sunday. This trend is perhaps the most inclusive attribute of our congregation as it cuts across every age and demographic. It’s not just the soccer moms and little league dads skipping Sunday am. It’s the empty nesters too who have over the last decade decided to snuggle up in that nest and sleep in on Sundays.

The Google Analytics confirm what I see from the altar. By the following sabbath, the MP3 downloads of my Sunday sermon will be double compared to the people who listened to it live. And, I can tell from Google’s creepy stats, many in this diaspora of sermon downloaders live right here in my city.

If ‘online community’ is even an intelligibly Christian category- and I’m not convinced- ours exceeds those who gather on Sunday morning.

The factor is even larger for those church folks who interact with me through this blog; meanwhile, every season yields a greater percentage of our operating budget given not in the brass plate but from the dropdown menu on our church website.

The upside in all of this, obviously, is that stable total attendance with decreased frequency in attendance means more total people are worshipping with us. It means people who would never join a bible study will email me a question about a blog post or a podcast. It means my church’s cash flow is healthier in the lean summer months the more we don’t need to rely on the plate offering.

So, there is upside.

But what sent me slinking off into the locker room was the gut check realization that the downside is real too.

You can download my sermons from your phone. For free. In less than 3 seconds. With DC traffic, you can check off the sermon on your To Do list on the way to the store. All alone in your car.

I wonder- in the zeal to create online constituencies, nurture e-engagement, and offer convenience and constant connection have we let slip a more fundamental claim upon us?

Have we made too easy for people NOT to show up for Sunday worship and, in making it too easy not to show up, have we forgotten that we previously asked them to vow to do just that?

In the United Methodist Church, the first vow the baptized make when joining the local expression of the Body of Christ is their presence. They covenant to show up. They promise to be present for the purpose of praise.

Not to blunt the matter, Christians have a holy and sacred obligation to participate in the community’s worship and glorification of God. Consider our fascination with the Social Principles. United Methodists do not hesitate to use the language of duty when it comes to ethical issues so why are reticent to speak of duty when it comes to the liturgical?

Our reticence is even more problematic when you recall that for Christians the ethical and the liturgical are not two distinct, exclusive, or complementary forms of faithfulness. Rather the one produces the other. The one is the necessary condition for the possibility of the other. What gets lost about the Apostle Paul’s diatribe in Romans 1 is his larger point that false worship of God produces vices while right worship of God forms us in the virtues such that repentance of our vices is possible.

Worship of the true and living God, therefore, is the only condition for right conduct.

The liturgical act makes possible, over time, the ethical act. It produces in us the habits that promise the possibility of becoming virtue. In other words, the commitment to show up and worship is the necessary condition for the creation of a people who can live out the social principles. As Paul says elsewhere in Romans, it’s through the Gospel proclamation that God rectifies us, puts us to rights.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism echoes Paul’s point about the formative necessity of worship. The very first article of the catechism answers that the chief end of man is “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” 

Chief end.

As in, telos.

Worship is where we discover and live into the end for which God has made us and towards which our lives, properly ordered, are directed. To make it plain, worship is where we learn how to be human.

The God you connect with in nature or on the golf course on Sunday morning never will be the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

Such a God will not insist you confess your trespasses every week nor is it likely the God of the golf course will command you to do something as counterintuitive as loving your enemies.

The insufficient ‘God of creation’ produces insufficient creatures.

Only in the context of gathered worship does the Living God speak.

Why would we be shy about insisting that Christians have a duty and obligation to listen? As the First Article of the Second Helvetic Confession of 1563 states: ‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” That is, when scripture is proclaimed faithfully and faithfully received by its listeners, it ceases to be an historical word and becomes a Living Word from God.

In other words, when I preach scripture faithfully and you hear scripture faithfully its no longer something God spoke long ago, it’s something God speaks, to us, today.

But-

If it’s just a preached word in your earbuds absent the reception of the listening community, then it might be a good talk or a helpful teaching or an inspiring story about something God said but it is not a Word God says.

Sermons in the context of worship are live events not simply because the preacher is preaching in the moment but because this is the event in which the Living God speaks.

Here’s what’s scary in a Post-Christian context where we’re desperate for any level engagement from people:

Without the moral formation alone made possible by liturgical formation the Christians who populate that Post-Christian landscape will never have sufficient characters to be compelling advertisements for the Gospel.

 

The only consistent thing on this podcast has been the soulful voice of Clay Mottley.

I’ve been good friends with Clay Mottley since O.J. was speeding down the highway in his white Ford Bronco. He’s a sensitive and caring friend, but just as important he’s a singular songwriter. Without cliche, simple or forced rhymes, Clay captures the power and the seduction of perfect pop songs.

Clay agreed to an NPR All Songs Considered format where he’d be interviewed AND play/sing whatever occurred to us in the moment.

Including, Cancer is Funny: The Song.

And a depressing version of the Beatles’ Help.

He’s been letting us use his music gratis on the podcast so we thought it would be appropriate that he was our special guest for the #100 Interview.

#100 Interviews?!

WTF.

From a little venture with Teer and Morgan to nurture my friendships with them, we’ve grown to be one of the top 3.5% of all podcasts on the interwebs. If podcasts were churches, we’d be one of the largest UMC’s out there- and it’s all because of you and your support!

Coming up on the podcast:

We’ve got at least 3 maybe more conversations with David Bentley Hart.

We’ve got Lisa Sharon Harper from Sojourners.

We’ve Emma Green the Religion Writer at Atlantic Magazine.

We’ve got the one and only Walter Brueggemann.

Plus my minion intern interviewing our pod-friend Tripp Fuller. Stay tuned.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

You’ve slacked off on giving us ratings and reviews!!!

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode.

Here then is Clay.

For the love of God, go over to his website and buy some music.

Here’s an article I wrote for Ministry Matters before, it should be noted, Bishop Lewis this year ran all over the conference, stood on chairs, and otherwise captivated with her spirit and passion, freeing conference from the drudgery that is RRoO:
Most every year the annual gathering United Methodists in Virginia will begin with someone from the floor offering a motion to remove the American flag from the venue- we typically meet in municipal coliseums. The flag, the thinking goes to which I’m sympathetic, is an idol in a context of worship where we’ve pledged allegiance alone to Jesus the King.
What none of us gathered there ever seem to notice is how there’s another dynamic at work even more subversive to the gospel and nefarious to the character of our community: Roberts Rules of Order.
I’m not sure exactly when the United Methodist Church and other mainline churches accepted giving away the spiritual practices of discernment, reconciliation, and consensus-building to Roberts Rules of Order. I do know, for example, that St. Luke does NOT tell us this in his Pentecost reporting:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, the prayers and Roberts Rules of Order. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
And I know, whenever we went all-in for this unChristian practice, it was likely sometime in the 20th century. Roberts Rules of Order was first written in 1876 Henry Martyn Robert who was an engineering officer in the regular Army. 
In other words, the Methodist Church adopted a secular means of deliberation in the industrial age at the same time the Methodist Church was adopting bureaucratic denominational and congregational structures that intentionally mirrored the corporate practices of the time, which produced, as my friend and mentor Dennis Perry says:
“a conflation of effectiveness with efficiency, so that we now care more about process than outcomes to the point that our outcome is our process. If asked most United Methodists can tell you who should be around the table and how to use parliamentary procedure, but few would have any words for how to create and lead a Gospel-centered community.”
Our adoption of RRoO coincided with our idolization of machines and factories. As a result, Dennis Perry argues, we seek a mass produced, top-down (what we call ‘connectionalism’) one-size-fits-all Christianity rather than a mentored, hand-crafted one; mass produced by a machine-like-culture where there is an artificial separation of management and labor, brain and brawn, producing a denomination that treats its laborers as unskilled and needing supervision:
“We trust statewide and national organizations more than local leadership.
We believe and act as if the larger organization is the real church while the local church exists for the greater church’s good.”
The impulse that gave us RRoO begat these structures and dynamics as well, structures we’ve largely left unchanged even as best practices in business have since evolved, flattened, and streamlined.

In an era where Amazon doesn’t even show me the same products it shows you, RRoO is but one of the ways we’re still trying to be Sears. 

I know in my pastoral experience generations of Christians raised on Roberts Rules of Orders has produced members of an institution not a movement.

RRoO has produced leaders who think discipleship is about raising their hand yay or nay at a meeting.

This is a devaluing of discipleship which in turn disempowers pastors into chaplains whose role is chiefly to pray at those meetings.  This is seen at our General Conference level where our bishops do not actually have the authority to lead our Church; their given only the authority to preside over parliamentary procedure.
Which gets to the real problem with Roberts Rules of Order- as any one who follows Congress knows is that it’s an inherently coercive, oppositional process for an ecclesial setting.  In this Roberts Rules of Order is but an antiquated form of the binaries lobbed on Twitter. When a challenging issue hits the floor, for instance, responses are generally limited to three for the proposal and three against, and each response also has a time limit.  Not to mention the amendments, sub-amendments, calls to table, etc. which follow. The more controversial motions passed then get litigated at our Judicial Council, Methodism’s version of the Supreme Court- another troubling not very Gospely attribute of how we’ve agreed to arrange our lives.
Roberts Rules of Order is not Holy Conferencing. 
The very nature of pro/con debate and parliamentary maneuvering is not dialogue and leaves the body more polarized.
As my e-friend Christy Thomas says: “Roberts Rules of Order is not the way to bring renewal to the church or bring the good news of Jesus, the one who sets us free and brings us redemption, to the world. [Christian] Dialogue is very, very different from parliamentary discussion.
“Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you. My peace Roberts Rules of Order I give you.’”
Every year the irony of United Methodists conferencing and worshipping in coliseums seems lost on us. Where the first Christians once accepted martyrdom in coliseums rather than betray their loyalty to the Caesar called Jesus, today Christians’ preferred discourse too often more nearly resembles Caesar asking the crowd for a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

In this episode of Strangely Warmed, Taylor and I talk about passive aggressive behavior as the most common Christian sin, slut-shaming, a night of debauchery and violence in seminary (Should we continue in sin so that grace may abound?), and why the sacrifice of Isaac should not be read existentially because God is not a character in Abraham’s head.

The readings we discuss are Genesis 21:8-21 and Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Jeremiah 20:7-13 and Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

You’ve slacked off on giving us ratings and reviews!!!

With weekly and monthly downloads, we’ve cracked the top 5-6% of all podcasts online. 

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

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Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode.

Feel the Bern

Jason Micheli —  June 19, 2017 — 1 Comment

 I continued our summer sermon series through Romans by preaching on Paul’s ‘mythological’ apocalyptic text in Romans 5.12-21.

     I know most of you don’t want to hear about politics from the pulpit. As one of you commented in all-caps hysteria about one of our dialogue sermons this spring: “KEEP POLITICS OUT OF THE PULPIT. STICK TO THE GOSPEL!!! :(“

Look, I get it. But what the Hell am I supposed to do when Politics and the Gospel collide through no fault of my own?

For example, the otherwise low-profile confirmation hearing on Capital Hill last week for Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee to be deputy director of something-something.

A sleepy session on CSPAN raised eyebrows and spawned social media memes when Sannders turned the Bern on Russell Vought and, literally wagging his finger, shouted: “Do you think that people who are not Christians are condemned?

Sannders did not relent his inquisition: ”Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned?” “What about Jews? Do they stand condemned, too?”

Russell Vought, repeatedly, responded: ”I’m a Christian.”

To which Bernie raised his voice and bellowed at the nominee: ”I understand you are a Christian, but there are other people who have different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are condemned?”

Behind Bernie’s soapbox assault was a blog post Russell Vought wrote a year ago in support of his evangelical alma mater, Wheaton College.

Wheaton had suspended a tenured professor whose views contradicted the school’s statement of faith and, during the ensuing controversy, Vought weighed in that “all are condemned apart from Jesus Christ.”

After wagging his finger, Bernie threw up his hands at Vought’s professed belief in the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation and declared that his faith claims disqualified him from serving his country through civil service.

Now I’d be a liar if I said the prospect of someone being disqualified from serving in the Trump administration because they were too Christian didn’t amuse me. I think it would be hilarious if more Christians were disqualified from serving the Donald because they were too Christian.

But my delight in that prospect aside, Wheaton College’s Statement of Faith isn’t substantively different than the confessions of any other Christian tradition.

Wheaton College might put differently than the United Methodist Church, but neither Wheaton nor Vought said anything contrary to what we say when we recite in the Apostles Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…who will come again to judge…”

Look, I admit I’m no fan of Bernie Sannders. When you’re a pastor in the United Methodist Church you’re already exposed to more self-righteousness than you can take.

     I’m not a Bernie fan; I only have room in my life for one socialist Jew.

I’m no Bernie fan but what caught my attention about this story wasn’t what Saunders said to Vought but what Christians said in response to Sanders, to Bernie’s inflammatory rhetoric.

Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention pointed to the Bible: “Christians don’t believe that we are constructing our faith. We believe that it’s been handed to us by God.”

Okay. That’s true.

Still Christians bypassed the creeds and pointed to the Constitution and the manner in which Bernie’s religious prejudice violated the Constitution’s religious protection.

Again, that’s true even if it’s a tepid Christian response.

Vought himself said he believes “that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs.”

That’s vanilla and generic but still, it’s correct.

But I’m surprised those were the only types of answers offered by Christians.

———————

     “Do you think that people who are not Christians stand condemned? I’m a Jew, do you believe I am condemned as well?”

Bernie asked.

And of course, the simple answer, the straight-up answer, the direct and unambiguous answer, the Gospel which Russell Vought and Russell Moore and Pope Francis and Mother Theresa and the Apostle Paul all proclaim-

the answer is ‘Yes.’

Yes, you stand condemned. Yes, they stand condemned.

And so do I.

I stand condemned.

(And so do you.)

     These days there’s a lot of talk about the decline of churches in America.

But maybe we should be more concerned with the decline in church members’ ability to articulate the Gospel.

Or maybe the latter produces the former. Maybe the church has waned alongside church members’ ability to articulate the Gospel message that all of us- all of us- stand condemned.

All have sinned.

Not one of us is righteous- Jew, Muslim, Christian; Religious or Secular- not one of is right in God’s eyes by anything we do or believe.

No matter what Bernie thinks, that’s not an exclusive belief; you literally cannot get more inclusive than the Gospel message that all of us are sinners.

All stand condemned.

————————

The Apostle Paul continues his argument by widening his frame here in Romans 5.

In order to comprehend fully that your justification is not about anything you do, Paul needs you to understand that ‘sin’ is about more than something you do and accrue.

Sin, Paul wants you to see, is a Power with a capital P.

It’s Sin, Paul wants you to grasp, with a capital S.

Paul doesn’t use the word sin as a verb, as something we do.

Sin is instead the subject of verbs.

Paul speaks of Sin not as something we do but as a Something that does- not simply an act we commit but as an Agency that conscripts. and implicates every last one of us, religious and irreligious.

First, Paul personifies all of us, the entire human community, as Adam, but then notice how Paul mirrors that by personifying Sin and Death- personifying them as reigning monarchs:

Sin won lordship over all humanity and Death came through Sin, and so Death advanced through all the world like an invading army.

You see, Death for Paul is not natural nor is it the punishment that follows Adam’s sin.

Death, for Paul, is a partner with Sin- Sin with a capital S- and it’s not until the end of his letter to the Romans that you discover both Sin and Death are synonymous for him with the Power of Satan.

Sin, Death, Satan- they’re all interchangeable terms.

Death, for Paul, is a rival anti-god Power that snuck into God’s creation through Adam’s disobedience.

Sin and Death, for Paul, are Pharaohs that enslave us.

Actually instead of Pharaoh the word Paul uses is kurios.

It’s the same word Paul uses to refer to Jesus here in Romans 5:

Just as Sin exercised lordship in Death, so Grace might also exercise lordship through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Kurios.

The lordship of Sin and Death vs. the lordship of Jesus Christ: it’s an intentional contrast.

What Paul wants you to see is that the Gospel is about a battle between contending Powers, a Power that would bind us versus a Power that would set us free.

And if that language sounds primitive and mythological to you, then talk to an alcoholic or someone addicted to drugs or porn or racism.

Talk to someone whose family is stuck perpetuating generations of abuse and antagonism.

I’ve been here long enough to know there are folks like that all around you this morning.

They’ll tell you: Paul’s ‘mythological’ language matches real world experience.

You don’t even need to believe in a literal, historical ‘Adam’ to nod your head to Paul here because the truth of what Paul writes here in Romans 5 is all over the headlines: from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Steve Scalise this week.

What better way to explain it than to say, like Paul, Sin is an enslaving lord that holds all of us captive, such that we cannot improve ourselves much less deliver ourselves.

When Christ comes into the world, he comes into occupied territory, and when you come into the world you do too.

All of us are sinners because none of us can choose to live elsewhere.

We’re all slaves to the Power of Sin.

But we’re accomplices too.

We’re captives, that’s true, but we’re culpable as well.

We’re culpable too.

Again, the truth of that is all over the headlines:

Columbine – Sandy Hook – Monroe Avenue.

Michael Brown – Sandra Bland – Philando Castile.

Ground Zero – Paris – Orlando – Nice – London

A Power that is not God has got us.

But we’re guilty too.

All of us. All stand condemned.

Just so it sinks in, Paul repeats it 7 times in chapter 5.

Over and over and over and over and over and over and over: one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all. 

————————-

During Russell Vought’s Senate confirmation hearing, Bernie kept getting on his soapbox to ask Russell Vought what he believed about other religions, as though Christianity is but one religion among many in America.

But there’s where Bernie’s wrong because if you understand Paul’s message, then you understand that Christianity, at its core, is not religious at all.

Look it up in the dictionary. The definitions of religion are all about us. The definitions of religion are all about what we do to seek God: belief and prayer and practice.

Disciplines we use to connect to God.

But Paul’s message is that God helps those who cannot help themselves. Paul’s whole irreligious point here is summed up in God’s first words after Adam’s sin: “Adam, where are you?”

The simple answer to Bernie’s question is ‘Yes.’

Yes, you stand condemned.

And so do I.

As all are in Adam, under the lordship of Sin and Death, all stand condemned.

But to leave the answer there is to mistake Paul’s message of justification for something we do.

Because of one man’s sin, all stand condemned…But, Paul says- Paul’s big buts always signal the good news- another man’s rectification of that sin means life for all. 

In Adam all stand condemned, but through the obedience that is the blood of the New Adam, God declares all of us ‘Not Guilty.’

That’s good news.

But it’s only part of it.

The Christian hope, Paul’s Gospel, the good news of justification is even bigger.

It’s the news that in Jesus Christ God has appeared in enemy territory not simply to forgive but to free.

Not only does this free gift of God in Jesus Christ make you no longer culpable, if you trust it- if you but put your faith in it- it can make you no longer captive as well.

     “Not guilty” are just the first two words of this good news.

     Because the righteous blood of Jesus Christ exchanged for your own not only acquits you of your culpability in the ultimate courtroom.

It can, if you put your trust in it, set you on the path to be freed.

Freed from the bonds of the Captor, whom Paul calls here: Sin and Death.

The Gospel isn’t just that in Jesus Christ you have been declared “Not Guilty.” The Gospel is that you can be declared Not You.

The Gospel is that in Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ alone, in Jesus Christ our only Savior, you can become a New You.

By faith.

And that’s where Bernie might not like my answer, but I know it to be true, not only because the Bible tells me so but because I’ve seen it for myself.

You will never be a new you on your own.

On your own, every new you will turn out to be another old Adam.

Jesus Christ is the only New Adam able to create a new humanity, in his story your stories of guilt and shame, your cracks and your captivity can be re-narrated. Re-told.

Receive this free gift in faith and the other half of the Gospel is yours:

You can be re-made.

Not just forgiven but set free.

Not only justified but rectified.

     Bernie won’t like the rest of the answer.

     But there is only one Savior because there is only one- only one- who was not born into the dominion of Adam, into the lordship of Sin and Death.

Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In what sense does eternal conscious torment for the ungodly in the after life mute the offense of the Gospel that Christ died for the ungodly? If God made all things good, is determined to make them good again, came in Christ for all, and died for all, then does it make sense that the all-powerful God would not in the end get what God wants? If Sin isn’t what we do as much as an anti-god Power, synonymous with Satan, then if all are not saved doesn’t that mean God has chosen not to rescue all?

These points of contention and more:

I was a guest this week on the New Persuasive Words Show hosted by Scott Jones and Bill Borror to debate the doctrine of Hell.

Check it out. If you’re receiving this by email, find it at this link.

Though it was hard, interviews like this one make me grateful and proud to be doing the podcast with my friends. For Father’s Day, we offer you this conversation that Teer and I did with Jason Jones the author of the new book, Limping But Blessed: Wrestling with God After the Death of a Child. Listening to Jason is painful but rewarding. His story of reaching out from grief to theologians like Jurgen Moltmann is edifying.

Example: His final answer to the 10 Questions.

Q: What do you want to hear God say when you arrive in heaven?

A: I’m sorry.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

You’ve slacked off on giving us ratings and reviews!!!

With weekly and monthly downloads, we’ve cracked the top 5-6% of all podcasts online. 

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If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode.

David King was about 7 when I came to Aldersgate. He’s interning for me this summer. He preached this past weekend and did a great job. Everyone told me how much he preached like me. Preaching is only learned through apprenticeship and imitation so I suppose, the extent that it’s true, that’s exactly as it should be.

Here is the sermon. His text was Romans 4.1-8.

Would you all pray with me?

Lord, you are faithful to us.  In this time of learning, reveal that faith to me, and preach to me so that you might preach through me.  Let these words not be mine, but yours.  Amen.

[Thank you] [Jason joke]

Fair warning, this is a little bit of a personal story.  By the time this is over, you’ll know a little bit more about me, and hopefully, God-willing I don’t severely screw this up, you’ll know a little bit more about faith.

Those of you that know me know that I have been doing service trips since, well, since I was considered old enough to endure the cultural shock that lies just three hours southwest of here.  The summer after the 6th grade, I was signed up to go on the Jeremiah Project.  It was Andrew DiAntonio’s first week on the job, and I wrecked a bathroom while sleepwalking, so it’s no wonder to me that he decided divinity school was probably better suited for him.

After three years at JP, as those close with the program fondly called it, I began going to Guatemala, doing my due diligence as a Christian to my one week of good deeds for the year.  Granted, those good deeds were interspersed with a fair amount of tourism, so I’m not really sure how much they count for.

Those of you who know me well know that I spent the majority of my summer last year actually living in Guatemala, working HSP.  I could tell you all about how this time of a little over a month was so transformative and blessed and wonderful and [insert your own favorite good adjective here], but if I did that I’d be lying, which I hear is a bad thing to do in church, especially if you’re preaching.

I’d be lying if I told you it was all great, because it was in Guatemala that I first really “lost contact” (emphasis on those scare quotes) with God.  One could say I had a reckoning of faith, lowercase f.  You see, from almost every single one of my standards, my life fell apart in my tenure in Guatemala, and all within about a week.

My sister had broken her arm.

My best friend’s boyfriend had just committed suicide.

My godmother, whom I love dearly, was daily sitting at the bedside of her dying friend, while her sister battled cancer in the same hospital.

So it’s only reasonable that I have one of these moments where I ask, do I really have the faith to get through this?

It was only reasonable that I realized that for several years, I’d been wearing a cross around my neck, but never believing in it.  Belief in Christ was something I realized I well and truly did not have.  High school has that effect on people.

This led me to the realization that the way we speak about faith is so vastly different than how Paul conceived of faith.  You see, we think about faith with a lowercase f, as something very personal to us.  The most radical conception we ever use to speak about faith is by saying that “God has endowed us with faith,” or we use the language of the born-again Christians, which is dangerous in its own right.

We speak of faith as though it is something we own, something we have, something that is completely of us and our volitions.

We talk about faith with a lowercase f, but we never talk about the Faith, uppercase F, of God.  Faith, with a capital F, is the faith of which Paul speaks in Romans 4.  Our grammar has simply abandoned this for a syntactic structure that places the onus of faith on us, fallible humanity.

Just as I experienced in Guatemala, a human-based methodology of faith was, is entirely insufficient.

 

Now, Paul’s main example for faith is the story of Abraham’s obedience to God.  But nothing prepares us for how Paul describes Abraham.  For Paul, Abraham is ungodly.  Not only does our translation say that he is ungodly, the word in the Greek, asebē, also translates to unholy, sacrilegious, impure.  More to the point, the word asebē used as a descriptor of Abraham is the only time that word appears in the Bible, New Testament and old, Hebrew and Greek.

Just to put that in perspective for you, the King James translation of the Bible has 774,746 different words in it.  For you truly Methodist folks, the New Revised Standard Version has 895,891 different words.  Hundreds of thousands of different words, and this is the only time anyone uses the word asebē to describe anyone.

Abraham, this revered, patriarchal figure, a pillar of the Old Testament and the grounding for our faith, is declared by Paul ungodly.  This man who almost kills his son in reverence and obedience to God is ungodly, sacrilegious, unholy.  None of us are like Abraham.  He was the pinnacle of obedience for the Hewbrew scriptures.  And if Paul is calling him ungodly, then that should say something about us.

Point being, Paul’s discussion of Abraham is never about Abraham’s faith in God.  And that’s the key point of God’s agency in imparting faith on Abraham.  Abraham was not good at faith, in fact, he did not have faith.  It was not until God invited Abraham to participate in a full communion with him that Abraham was ready to receive the covenant.

The metaphor Paul uses to describe the relationship Abraham has with God is a legal one, and purposefully so.  Works, and thus wages, are not the reason for Abraham’s justification.  “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.  But to one who without works trust him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.”  Paul takes on legalism, and for us modern readers, he takes on the entire structure of law, payment, and transaction theology.  The structure of interaction, this idea that we get only what we deserve, that we must work for our wages, is Paul’s way of illustrating for us that the love and faith of God to humanity is so fantastically different than any relationship we conceive of.  You see, God takes us.  That’s it.  That’s the message, that’s the faith Paul’s talking about.  The discrepancy between God’s Faith, capital F, and our faith, lowercase f, is an abyss we cannot bridge ourselves.

So God does it for us.  That’s his covenant.
When Paul’s talking about Abraham, he’s specifically talking about the man with whom he drew the first covenant.  The instance that Paul is referring to, when “Abraham believed God,” he never says he had faith.  Belief and faith are so often conflated that the latter has lost most of its substantive meaning.

“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

Reckoned, says Paul, to him.

And we have to remember that when Paul speaks about righteousness, it’s not a value or a set of morals to which he is referring; righteousness is a gift of the covenant, which means it’s a gift that is completely and utterly of and from God, just like faith.

For two weeks, I did not go a day without crying, without feeling utterly set apart, disjointed and broken.  I was surrounded by people on service projects, experiencing the joy of humility, but I could not participate in their ecstasy.  I could not think of anything other than going home, being with my godmother, sitting with my sister, and holding my friend.  I could not think of anything other than their pain.  By all accounts, I was lost.  Lost in a foreign country, with a foreign people, in the mountains where even the air was different.

It would be a cliché to tell you that I had a revelation, and to do that would make it seem like I had done something to deserve that.  I’m a sinner, and by all worldly accounts, I don’t deserve a revelation.

But I was sitting outside of the community center in Chiucutama one night when it dawned on me that I’d been thinking about it all wrong.  I’d been thinking about faith, about Christianity, as something I chose, something I elected.
I had disregarded the Faith, capital F, of God to us.

In fact, if that weren’t true, if God were not ever there for us, in the covenant fulfilled and revealed in Christ, we would have nothing to turn to once we’ve turned away.  You know, sitting there in Chiucutama looking at the hills under the moonlight, if God was not faithful to us forever, I would’ve realized the opposite.  Nihilism would’ve reigned, and I would not be in the communion of Faith, capital F, that I am right now.

God is faithful, to us.  Faith, capital F, is never ours, never something we do.  It is a gift, of the eternal sort.

Abraham wasn’t good at faith.  Neither am I.  But that’s because the kind of faith that really matters, the kind that counts for something, is not a kind of faith I could ever embody.  Nor could you.

We come to church thinking that we are doing it out of the goodness of our hearts for Jesus, who we have faith in, but really, and if we are thinking about this in the way Paul thinks about it, coming to church is not about our faith.  It is about us participating in God’s faithfulness to us, through Christ.

When we talk about faith in the possessive, we reduce God to something we can manipulate, to something we can use and disregard.  Faith, lowercase f, reduces God to god, lowercase g.

Faith comes easiest to those who come into church, sing about Jesus, and go on their merry way.  We have to understand that to be a Christian means, uniquely, to be bad at faith.  Being bad at faith is part of our relationship with God, because if we were good at faith, his faithfulness to us would not be unique and unquestionable and beautiful.  God’s faithfulness to us would not have changed the world in Christ if we were “good at faith.”

During my last week in Guatemala, I walked into the cathedral in the square in Xela, where HSP is located, right in the middle of mass.  I know, that’s a cringeworthy word here, but everyone in Guatemala is either Roman-Catholic or some form of evangelical, and frankly, I prefer the former.  As I was walking in, the priest had just risen and spoken four all too important words.

“The mystery of faith,” he pronounced, just as I sat down in the back pew, across from a family of four.

In retrospect, the priest was right.  We call it the mystery of faith for a reason:  precisely because it is not ours to command and possess, but a given gift.

I have never been so comforted by a mystery than I was in that moment.

I offer to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The narrative of God’s self-disclosure is not going on in Abraham’s head! Paul asks what can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus BECAUSE THERE ARE POWERS AT WORK TO DO JUST THAT. Naming my Education Building after Donald Trump. Bar Trivia. All this and more.

Taylor and I crack our way into Ordinary Time discussing Genesis 18 and Romans 5 plus the other lectionary readings for this upcoming Sunday.

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We don’t even follow the lectionary in my congregation- I’m preaching Romans all summer- that’s how much we want to help you.

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We had a great conversation with Dr. Normal Wirzba for the podcast recently. We’ve not edited the audio to post, but I thought I’d give you a peek at the video. In this conversation, Dr. Wirzba talked about food and drink as the means God has given us to experience the Triune life, sacrifice and eating, and scripture as an agrarian book.

Dr. Wirzba is a Professor of Theology at Duke and is the author of many books including Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating.